This is the day, a very important day, when we Koreans prepare kimchi for the winter and the upcoming year. What did you say, it sounds like a lot of work? Oh yes, indeed. It is lots and lots of work. This is the day when a year of work finally come to fruition.
Kimchi is the core of Korean cuisine, culture, and people’s identity. I’m pretty sure it flows through our veins. Korea is kimchi, and we are proud of it. To continue our affection for this wonderfulness, we need to work hard. This time of the year, everyone’s busy preparing for gimjang (or kimjang).
Gimjang is a traditional process of making and preserving kimchi, and it has been a recurring occasion throughout my life. Once a year exactly. During one of my very first gimjangs in the kindergarden, I was in charge of radish kimchi (ggakdugi). I was not happy because I wanted to work on cabbage kimchi, which was my favorite. I remember gigantic piles of cabbages in our small house. As the oldest daughter in the family, my mom used to make kimchi for the entire extended family. Our neighbors exchanged some kimchi after the annual gimjang, but my mom’s was, and still is, the best. It’s quite usual to have five to ten different types of kimchi in the fridge in a normal Korean household. Right now, we have… fresh, a bit aged, spring onion, water kimchi (mulkimchi), last year’s, and two different kinds of fresh kimchi from our relatives. I’m pretty sure at least 30% of my body is made of kimchi.
This year I had an opportunity to participate in this important process. My uncle has a property up in the mountains in Gangwondo Pochon where he co-farms various vegetables with my extended family. It’s about 1.5 hours drive from Seoul. It’s almost a complete farm house where people can sleep, cook, relax, as well as farm. There are three main crops here: cabbages, radishes, and chili peppers, which are the key ingredients for kimchi. Throughout the year they worked hard for this very moment. The chili peppers were planted, harvest, dried, and already powdered. Over 100 cabbages were ready to be harvested, as well as radishes and mustard leaves. There’s a small house dedicated to growing mushrooms, and a small patch was used for growing sweet potato. Everything grows organically here.
Gimjang is probably the most difficult food-related process in Korea. Preparing the ingredients are complex, but matching the perfect ratio of all the content is even more challenging. Because the whole process is for fermentation, you need years of experience to have the right tastebuds. Weather is also an important variable. Not to mention that this is a very labor-intense process. The key ingredients are: cabbage (specifically Korean cabbage), spring onion, radish, mustard leaves, garlic (has to be already grounded and aged), geotgal (salted and aged seafood, usually anchovies and shrimp), ginger, well-cooked rice porridge, and last but not least, chili pepper powder.
We started by harvesting cabbages from the field. Every family gets 10 to 30 cabbages. We delivered them to the main house for washing. My mom cut the cabbages in half, washed, and put them into the big container for salting. We had four big tubs filled with cabbages. Then we had to wait until they lost their crispness. It would take about 5 hours. Meanwhile, we prepared the rest of the ingredients. Spring onions and mustard leaves needed to be chopped small. Radishes are usually julienned. We mixed all the ingredients together in a big tub. It’s the key seasoning to decide the taste of your kimchi. Controlling the portion of each of the ingredients is important, as well as the amount of the whole seasoning. Making too much is not good, but too little is even worse.
The salted cabbages were all washed by veteran kimchi makers (my Aunts and mom) overnight. Then it was time to turn them into kimchi. In this process, cabbages are mixed with the big tub of seasonings, which each family made separately. You have to put just the right amount of the seasonings between every cabbage leaf. It was amazing to watch four seasoned women seasoning cabbages. Just like that, containers were filled with kimchi and ready to age. We have four big containers of kimchi aging at the moment. It will be eaten until this time next year. Ah, the joy of fermentation.
My families worked so hard for this moment. They poured their time and affection into the plants, and harvested the healthiest and most delicious crops I’ve ever tasted. The traditional ways of living, like agriculture, are not a favorable occupation anymore, but it is certainly one of the most important factors in everyone’s life. Because we farmed all the vegetables ourselves, we know they’re safe to eat. And it’s more delicious. Gimjang is also the reason why these busy people are here, spending weekends together. It’s hard work, but it’s a noble excuse to spend more time with the family. Working on the farm in the mountain and making food for the rest of the year, what’s not to like?
Did you know gimjang is also the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage?
I can’t wait to taste our kimchi next year.